Bar/fly: Bundaberg

By Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly finds out what a polar bear has to do with tropical Bundaberg rum.
A tour of Bundaberg distillery in Queensland is so informatively detailed that visitors need a tasting session at the end to soothe their overworked brains. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
A tour of Bundaberg distillery in Queensland is so informatively detailed that visitors need a tasting session at the end to soothe their overworked brains. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

Beyond the Champagne region of France, there aren't too many localities whose name is synonymous with liquor.

One that immediately comes to mind is Bundaberg in Queensland. The moment you hear the name you think of either rum or ginger beer, so on a recent visit to Northern Queensland I paid a visit to Bundaberg to find out whether the rum is named after the town, or is it the other way round.

Bundaberg is a modern, progressive city servicing a district of more than 112,000 people. The name comes from the linking of Bunda, the name of an aboriginal elder, and Berg, a variation of an Old Saxon word for town (burg).

The Bundaberg district produces a significant percentage of Queensland's sugar crop and it's from the vast amounts of sugar cane in the district that the journey of Bundaberg rum begins.

Out of the sugar cane comes molasses. Bundaberg rum originated because the local sugar mills had a problem finding a use for the waste molasses after the sugar was extracted.

It was heavy, difficult to transport and the cost of converting it to stock feed rarely was worth the effort.

Sugar men first began to think of the profits that could be made from distilling. The vital meeting was held at the Royal Hotel on August 1, 1885, with all the big sugar mill owners of that time in attendance.

They started with capital of $5000 and the Bundaberg Distilling Company began operating in 1888. To this day, the distillery still stands on its original site.

And so to the tour.

On arrival at the distillery, I noticed a sign which stated, "A tour that's one of a kind 'cause we're one of a kind".

The tour began with an audio-visual presentation in an intimate theatre where the full history of Bundaberg rum was told, and then we were welcomed by our guide, who proceeded to give us the full safety briefing.

Number one: it was important to wear good, covered walking shoes and, number two: if we had anything on us with a battery we were requested to leave it behind in a locker. That included watches and cameras.

Once the valuables were safely locked away it was off to the dark, very hot, swirling molasses pit, which marked the beginning of the rum-making process.

A little taste of the raw molasses followed, which brought back memories of being a child growing up, when Mum used to give us large dessertspoons of the stuff. Not sure whether it worked or not.

The next stop on the very informative tour was at the fermentation and distillation building, where millions of litres of Bundaberg rum was beginning its life.

Our tour guide's knowledge was amazing on every aspect of the process, right down to the value of the product to the region. In the bond store more than 22 million litres of rum was maturing ... very tempting for any rum lover.

In the Grand Barrel House, we walked through an historic oak vat, the size of a house, with a glass floor. Under the glass, the fermenting process continued.

As a rum novice, my eyes were opened by the varieties of rum produced in the distillery and I was looking forward to a tasting session in the house bar at the end of the tour but, before that, it was on to the bottling plant, for the final process - an impressive sequence of automation.

If you are familiar with the Bundaberg label on the bottles of rum, you'll know it features a polar bear - a rather unusual symbol for a product from hot, tropical Queensland. It was introduced as the company's mascot in 1961 to imply that the rum could ward off the coldest chill.

The tour finished in Spring House, an old plantation house that was transported to its current site in 1991 and lovingly restored.

It now houses a museum, a very comprehensive souvenir store and the house bar, where you are given a choice of two free drinks from the line-up of rums produced.

My pick during the tasting was the Bundaberg Rum Royal Liqueur. This is a carefully crafted blend of chocolate, caramel, vanilla and coffee flavours and - of course - Bundaberg rum. Nice. That was going into my bag for my journey home.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand, Jetstar, Qantas, Emirates and Virgin Australia fly daily to Brisbane. Local carriers continue to Bundaberg, and a tilt train covers the 351km journey most days.

Further information: Guided tours of the Bundaberg Distilling Company's distillery run every hour from 10am-3pm Monday to Friday and between 10 and 2pm on Saturday, Sundays and public holidays.

Brian Kelly travelled to Australia with the assistance of Tourism Australia and Tourism & Events Queensland.

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